The day before we meet, Lily Collins had what felt like a breakthrough encounter. At the end of a short, on-camera interview, the journalist had asked where she lived. Los Angeles, she told him, where her mother was born and raised, and where she has lived since the age of five, when her parents divorced. He then asked where her father lived. England, and partly in the US now, too, she answered. And what did her father do for a living? After some stifled giggling from the crew, Collins, who has just turned 30, gently explained her parentage. “And the guy just looked at me with the biggest eyes,” she laughs. “He’s like, ‘I’m sorry, what did you just say? Oh God, now I feel silly.’”
She insists that she was very grateful for his ignorance. “I’m so proud of my family, but I have also worked really hard to carve my own path and to not have that define me.’”
The daughter of superstar musician Phil Collins and his second wife, Jill Tavelman, she admits that her famous surname has inevitably opened doors, but insists that nobody has ever “made a phone call” for her. “I did get told that I could have other ways in,” she shrugs, when we meet on a rainy New York afternoon. “but I never wanted to give anyone the opportunity to say: ‘Well, she only got X or Y because of that.’ I knew it would take longer to do it on my own, but it would be so much more worth it.”
Collins’s insistence on carving her own path is now paying off, with two high-profile films – Tolkien, and Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, and the US launch of the BBC miniseries Les Miserables, for which her performance as the tragic Fantine is already creating some early awards buzz.
Tolkien, a biopic of the author’s early life, stars Nicholas Hoult as JRR Tolkien, the philologist and author of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings series, while Collins plays Edith Bratt, his childhood sweetheart and, later, his wife, who was the inspiration for Lúthien Tinúviel, the elvish princess in Tolkien’s Middle-earth. “I had auditioned to play an elven character in one of Peter Jackson’s movies, and I didn’t get it… but I’ve ended up playing the woman who inspired the elven princess,” grins Collins. It is her most mainstream, highly anticipated film to date, and a world away from the romcom roles she was getting five years ago. While there’s a heavy focus on Tolkien’s male friendships – the inspirations for his “fellowship” in his books, Bratt is fully fleshed-out and three-dimensional, too, not some flimsy, token love interest. “She was very creative and very passionate and driven, and he was intellectually stimulated by her,” says Collins. Bratt and Tolkien were both orphans. “At that time women of her status and in her position weren’t really afforded the opportunity to seek higher,” says Collins. “But she encouraged him to continue on his path. It’s very selfless, and, at times, heartbreaking.”
She sees a similar selflessness in Fantine, her once-vivacious character in Les Miserables, who becomes a prostitute and sells her hair and teeth in order to feed her child. “I died on day two of filming,” says Collins, with a laugh. She sent a picture of herself in character to her mother, who replied, “No one should have to see their daughter like this.”
“My choices have tended to go quite dark,” admits Collins of her recent roles. Just three days ago, she finished filming Inheritance, a forthcoming thriller in which she stars alongside Simon Pegg. “That’s incredibly dark, too. I really enjoy playing these characters that, under the surface, have so much more going on than they are saying, or who seem like they are barely keeping it together.
“I’ve always believed that asking for help is not a weakness, it’s a strength,” she continues. “I have a tattoo that says: ‘True delicacy is not a fragile thing.’ You can look delicate, but it doesn’t mean that you’re fragile.” I surmise, from her having it made permanent in ink, that people have, perhaps, underestimated her in the past.
Undoubtedly the darkest of her recent projects is Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, about the serial killer Ted Bundy, who murdered more than 30 girls and women in seven US states in the 1970s. The title comes from the judge’s summation of Bundy’s acts when sentencing him to death. Collins plays Elizabeth Kloepfer, the killer’s long-term girlfriend who is convinced of his innocence, with Zac Efron playing a charismatic and persuasive Bundy.
While preparing for the role, over the Christmas holidays, Collins recounts how she would wake every night at 3.05am. “I would go downstairs and have a cup of tea, trying to figure out why I had woken up again.” Then, she says, “I started being woken up by flashes of images, like the aftermath of a struggle.” She went to the internet to investigate. “I discovered that 3am is the time when the veil between the realms is the thinnest and one can be visited.” She began to believe women who were murdered by Bundy were, perhaps, trying to contact her. “I didn’t feel scared – I felt supported. I felt like people were saying: “We’re here listening. We’re here to support. Thank you for telling the story.”
Collins tells me all of this in a completely matter-of-fact manner, as if receiving messages from long-dead murder victims were a perfectly normal part of preparing for a film. It’s pretty much the only moment in our time together when she seems more Californian than British. Even her looks – porcelain skin, dark hair and dramatic eyebrows – are eminently more London than LA. And, while in person her accent is pure California, on screen in Tolkien, her clipped, turn-of-the-century English consonants and vowels are flawless, as are her more working-class ones for Fantine. She looks deeply relieved when I tell her so. “I did worry that people were going to be like, ‘Well, she is actually British, her accent should really be better,’” she laughs. “There’s an extra level of pressure. I worked with a dialect coach as I needed it to be absolutely spot-on.”
Collins was born in Guildford, Surrey, at the height of her father’s success – six months later he would release Another Day in Paradise. Is it true, I ask, that Elton John used to babysit her? “I’ve really got to sit my parents down and ask them questions about that. I’ve been hearing it for so long, but I really have no idea,” she says.
After relocating with her mother to LA at the age of five, following her parents’ divorce, she attended the prestigious Harvard-Westlake school, where former pupils include Maggie and Jake Gyllenhaal, and began auditioning for film and TV roles. “I was getting told ‘no’ all the time,” she says, which she puts down simply to a lack of experience. “I’d done musicals and plays at school, but I hadn’t studied acting or anything, and auditioning for film and TV is very different.”
At the same time, journalism held an appeal, too. “I wanted to be the youngest-ever talk show host,” she says. After pitching ideas to magazine editors, she began writing for Teen Vogue and Elle Girl, and scored a job as a reporter for the children’s channel Nickelodeon, covering the 2008 presidential election and Obama’s inauguration. “I was 18 and I could just vote, so I was like, ‘Oh great, I get to ask all the questions that I don’t know the answers to.’” What she liked less, however, were the questions she had to ask as a roving reporter on the red carpet. “I would think, oh, that’s not what I really want to ask this person, I would hate to be asked that,” she recalls. On the other side of the microphone now, there are questions she simply doesn’t answer, about her personal life, or about politics, on which she refuses to be drawn.
She studied broadcast journalism at the University of Southern California, but dropped out in her second year when, in 2009, after several years of auditioning, she won her first film role, as Sandra Bullock’s daughter in The Blind Side. Soon after, she was perfectly cast as Snow White in Mirror Mirror, followed by Rosie Dunne in Love, Rosie, the adaptation of Cecelia Ahern’s novel Where Rainbows End.
Though acting has clearly won out over journalism and talk show ambitions are on hold for now, Collins is still a keen writer. In 2017, she published Unfiltered: No Shame, No Regrets, Just Me, a collection of personal essays in which she opened up about her struggles and self-doubts, her relationship with her father, with partners, and with her own body, writing about the eating disorders she battled for some years. “A lot of young women write to me on social media [she has more than 14m followers on Instagram], saying, ‘I just wanted to let you know that this is my situation and my insecurity, not that you would ever be able to relate to it…’ and I’ll always be like, ‘No, I really can relate,’” she insists.
Collins describes in Unfiltered how, as a child, she had only positive associations with food, but that changed when she turned 16. Her father was separating from her stepmother, his third wife, while Lily was juggling school, a budding modelling career, a social life and trying to break into acting, too. “My life felt out of control,” she writes. “I couldn’t handle the pain and confusion surrounding my dad’s divorce, and I was having a hard time balancing being a teenager with pursuing two different grown-up careers – both of which I’d chosen myself, but which also focused heavily on how I looked.” She began starving herself, exercising obsessively and became addicted to diet pills and laxatives, habits which continued well into her early 20s.
She pitched the book proposal during a dry spell in acting. “I hadn’t booked anything film-wise for a while, and I was itching to do something. The idea for the book had been at the back of my mind for a while, and I thought, well, maybe now’s the time.” Soon after, she was also sent the script for To The Bone, a film about a young woman with chronic anorexia. “It was too big a message to ignore,” recalls Collins. She attended group therapy sessions with recovering anorexics. “I didn’t want them thinking that I was just coming in to be nosy. I wanted them to know that I actually could relate. It encouraged me to really dig deep and tell the truth, to be more brave. And it was freeing,” she says. Collins sent a copy of the book to Michelle Obama “on a whim. I wanted to reach out to certain people and just thank them for being an inspirational woman, someone who I look up to,” she says. “I certainly never expected to receive a letter back thanking me and saying the same thing. I need to get that letter framed.”
This summer, she’s heading to France to film Emily in Paris, the new comedy-drama from Sex and the City creator Darren Star. “I knew I had so much baggage that I needed to get rid of in order to take on the baggage of all my characters,” she says. “And the second I did that, my career and my personal life opened up in a whole new way.” Collins, it seems, having been drawn to the darkness, professionally and personally, is now heading towards the light.
Tolkien is released on 3 May. Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is on Sky Cinema and in cinemas from 3 May